How to Eat for Holiday Sanity

Last week I talked about some of the major pitfalls that seem to make holiday eating especially challenging. They included:

  • Not eating enough
  • Letting ourselves get too hungry
  • Eating according to beliefs and expectations (rather than what’s actually on our plates or in our mouths)
  • Last-supper eating
  • Letting self-care fall through the cracks

Please note that none of these is about “dangerous” foods to resist, eating situations to avoid, or tricks to curb your appetite or desire for certain foods. These are actually about paying attention to your body and mind and being really, really (REALLY!) good to yourself.

So what’s the antidote to holiday eating insanity? It’s not all that complicated. A combination of anticipation, attention, gentleness, and discipline (not the military kind) can completely change your experience of holiday eating.

1. Notice and respond to hunger

Try to notice how hunger and fullness feel in your unique body and stay away from the extremes. The range of hunger and fullness you experience likely usually looks something like this:


Very hungry


A little hungry

Not hungry/not full

A little full


Very full


Experiment with starting to eat when you are hungry or a little hungry and stopping when you are full or a little full. See how that affects your choices, level of enjoyment, and ability to notice yourself gradually becoming satisfied.

2. Avoid getting too hungry

By noticing and responding to hunger, you can avoid getting too hungry, which causes a biological drive to overeat (not a problem, just a sign that your body is working!). Plus, when you get too hungry, you’re less able to made mindful choices, to eat at a pace that maximizes enjoyment, and to recognize when you’re at the point of comfortable fullness.

Plan ahead when you’re out and about to avoid getting too hungry or missing a meal. And avoid starving yourself in preparation for a feast. Instead, feed you body with a combination of whole grains, high-quality protein, and healthy fats.

Some ideas for satisfying snacks and light meals include: cheese and fruit; full-fat or low-fat yogurt sprinkled with nuts and dried cranberries; cut-up veggies and hummus (single-packs work great as a portable snack); fruit and an envelope of nut butter (Justin’s is amazing!); an energy bar made with whole grains, protein, and good fats (my favorite right now is the Zing bars); homemade or store- bought trail mix; cappuccino or latte made with low-fat or whole milk.

3. Enjoy to the fullest

Eat what you’re really hungry for and don’t deprive yourself, which usually backfires anyway. Ever try to NOT eat what you really wanted and end up eating one unsatisfying substitution after another to chase a certain flavor or experience, only to ultimately “give in” and eat what you originally wanted anyway? Yeah, me too! Skip the detour and just eat what you crave…mindfully.

Make eating enjoyable and use all of your senses – sight, smell, touch/texture, taste, and even hearing. Rather than “cleaning up” leftovers standing over the sink or mindlessly snacking while chatting over the appetizers table, allow yourself to sit down, slow down, and tune in. You deserve a lovely eating experience!

4. Allow yourself to eat in the present moment

Sometimes we eat according to our expectations and beliefs. Our senses of taste and enjoyment can get hijacked by the sight of certain foods (often the ones we consider forbidden or scarce) and the belief that they will satisfy something inside of us.

Eating a beautiful Christmas cookie, ornate dessert, or amazing-looking appetizer can be a wonderful thing. But if in reality it tastes like cardboard, acknowledge that. As you’re eating the things that set off fireworks in your brain, notice if you’re actually enjoying them or not. Remember that taking one bite doesn’t mean you have to eat the whole thing. Instead, you can casually discard it and choose to eat something you’ll really enjoy. On the other hand, if you find something is exactly what you want, give yourself the permission to enjoy it fully.

5. Play it out

In the recovery world, when someone wants to drink or use drugs, we say “play it out.” This means imagine the scenario that will unfold if you do something you have concerns about. The same concept can be applied to insane holiday eating.

When it comes to last supper eating – the desire to overeat because you may never have the chance again – you can play it out by asking yourself some key questions:

What will happen if I eat everything I set my eyes on? How will that make me feel physically? How will I feel emotionally? What is my real motivation? If it’s satisfaction and experience I’m after, will overeating help me reach those goals?

6. Keep in mind the spirit of the season and be generous and kind (to yourself)

Even though this is the last item on the list, it’s actually the most important instruction.

Though it may be counterintuitive, being hard on ourselves just doesn’t work. It doesn’t help us reach our goals and makes us feel much worse in the long run. Only by softening toward ourselves can we finally move toward balance, health, and sanity.

Being good to ourselves happens on an outer and an inner level. On an outer level, we can take good care of our bodies by getting enough sleep (naps encouraged!), drinking enough water, scheduling some time for a yoga class, getting a massage or pedicure, or stopping for coffee with a friend. And we can move beyond black and white thinking when it comes to our exercise schedule – you know, the tendency to stop working out altogether if we can’t keep up our usual regime. Realistically, doing what you can will have real effects in terms of stress reduction and physical and emotional well being. It’s a wonderful opportunity to practice imperfection!

On an inner level, we can become very compassionate toward ourselves. We can notice the behaviors that don’t really work for us, and experiment with ones that do. We can enjoy both the flavors of the holiday and the feelings and experience of the season without feeling completely knocked off balance.


christmas cookies

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